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'March Madness' Basketball Attracts Passionate Audience


The widely-followed men's U.S. college basketball tournament - also known as March Madness - is underway here in the United States. Across the country, teams are vying for the chance to play for the national title. As VOA's David Byrd reports, the single-elimination tournament awakens school pride and passion like few other events.

As the CBS Television network began its broadcast of the men's tournament this week, fans across the country were tuned in - or logged on - to the games. This year, CBS is making its broadcasts available online so fans can watch their favorite teams at their computers. An estimated 1.5 million fans will do so at their office desks.

This season's tournament features some schools - like SEC Champion Georgia - who made it in as conference champions, but were lower seeds because of their record or strength of schedule.

Georgia, a 14th seed, lost to third-seeded Xavier, 73-61, in the first round. However, Xavier Coach Sean Miller - whose team lost to eventual champion Ohio State last year - says he would not change the selection system to eliminate weaker teams.

"I love the NCAA Tournament," Miller said. "It is an imperfect process. There's always going to be a coach or a team that could have made it but didn't. Same thing on the seeds. But that's what makes the NC double A tournament what it is. Every game takes on its own personality and in a two-hour period of time a lot of different swings can happen."

There are other teams like Belmont, a small Nashville, Tennessee school that was drawn against perennial powerhouse Duke in the first round. At a crowded hotel lobby in Washington, several Belmont students and fans gathered to prepare for the contest. Senior accounting major Brian Dunn said 64 teams is the right size, even if his school has little chance of advancing.

"I think it's right on," he said. "You know, because you get the at-large bids, which is like 30-something and then the conference winners. So the teams that all ranked higher naturally get to play, but it also gives the smaller team the opportunity to play. So, I think if you do any more, it's just going to be too tied up, but less doesn't give those teams that deserve to play, that did well in their conference tournaments, the right to play."

Former Indiana University coach Bobby Knight has advocated expanding the tournament to 128 teams. Knight says his idea would allow for the absolute best teams to make it to the 64-team field. But expanding the field would reduce the value of winning a conference title or a regular season championship. It would also mean less money for the National Collegiate Athletic Association or NCAA.

This season, teams that play in March Madness receive a 'unit' for each game they play in. A unit amounts to a six-year payment to that school's conference from the NCAA's revenue pool accrued from broadcaster CBS.

Based on this year's unit values, this amounts to approximately $1 million payment for each game a team plays in. Letting more teams into the tournament would cost the governing body between $64 and $77 million.

But part of the tournament's attraction is the chance that lower-seeded teams - the so-called "Cinderella" teams - can beat higher seeded opponents.

The event also taps into school loyalties nationwide. This year, more than 37 million office workers were expected to take part in office betting pools.

The Chicago-based placement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimated more than $1.7 billion worth of productivity would be lost because people were watching the games instead of working.

Despite the passion, last year's title game drew 19.56 million viewers according to the A.C. Nielsen organization. That was more than the previous year, but it continued a downward ratings trend. This year's competition continues through the final game April 7 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.

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